Wireless networking in the enterprise is all about getting work done. And work may not always mean e-mail or messaging, or those other nice features you’re finding on your iPhone or Android device.
Instead, the work reflects the nature of the enterprise: Whether it’s Sandburg’s hog butchers, tool makers, stackers of wheat, railroad or freight handlers, it’s about the work that companies and their employees do. When you see wireless in the enterprise, it’s as likely to be on a gritty loading dock in the back of the receiving facility or bolted to the side of a forklift as it is to be in a brightly lit office somewhere upstairs.
That’s why the big news in wireless and mobile computing isn’t that there are iPhone apps for some things. The really important news is that wireless communication is reaching the point at which enterprise IT managers can depend on it for fast, reliable communications-both in and out of the building. Because of this, 802.11n and 3G or 4G wireless are a lot more important than the ability to download television shows to a smartphone.
What matters to enterprise IT managers is that a wireless installation works to facilitate the purpose of the business. This may mean that the warehouse crew can get pick orders delivered wirelessly or that the shipping department can coordinate the loading of trucks. But it may also mean that the sales staff has access to the latest information on product inventory and pricing, or that the field service force has access to reference information.
Enterprises that plan from the beginning for a wireless environment-or adapt their enterprise to a wireless infrastructure-stand to reap the benefits of being truly flexible and mobile. Companies that let wireless just happen to them because they don’t have an identifiable wireless plan will ultimately pay a price in reduced flexibility, higher costs and limited competitiveness.
A corporate strategy
But adapting wireless to the enterprise takes more than getting the company managers a few cell phones. It means approaching wireless as a corporate strategy in much the way that Hearst Publishing did when it built its new Manhattan headquarters (see tinyurl.com/23e7la3). In this case, Hearst was building a new office, not a factory floor wireless environment, but the company moved to a model that would allow ubiquitous WiFi and cell phone coverage throughout the production environment that matters most to the company: its editorial staff.
Joe Melfi, D-Link’s associate director of business solutions marketing, said the critical technology for enterprise wireless is WiFi. “When it [802.11n] was ratified, it was a big deal and companies would spend money on it,” Melfi said. “11n is giving better coverage per access point. You get faster throughput and faster traffic, and it won’t kill your network.”
A key feature of 802.11n that makes it ideal for the enterprise, according to Melfi, is its MIMO (multiple input, multiple output) technology. “The technology is more noise-tolerant,” he explained, “and your success in getting and keeping a connection is a lot better. You have dual-band technology, so if you have a lot of noise, you can switch to the other band. You can fall back to lower bit rates and rebroadcast.”
Melfi said that MIMO technology is the real key to WiFi’s sudden growth in the enterprise. “Now everything is going 11n,” he said. “Bar-code readers and inventory systems are all going 11n. On loading docks, when drivers arrive, they just punch their driver number into a wireless device and cargo starts arriving.”
There are many applications in the enterprise for this emerging capability, but Harpreet Chadha, senior director of product management for Extreme Networks, is already seeing a few that stand out. “I’m surprised about the amount of video coming to the enterprise-collaboration, distance learning, broadcasts from the CEO,” Chadha said. “You need to have more bandwidth for the connections you care about now.”
Chadha said that the new reliability and improved bandwidth found in today’s wireless environment are lending themselves to some applications that have traditionally been confined to a wired network environment. “You expect that the dashboard on your database will work over a wireless connection,” he pointed out.
Wireless technology is also cropping up in other areas now that more bandwidth and greater reliability are available. “Companies are using WiFi and RFID for inventory and warehousing,” Chadha said, noting that while both technologies have been around for a while in the warehouse, faster and more reliable communications are making them the norm rather than the exception. He also noted that some new applications, such as locating people, are making an appearance.
Chadha expects to see even more growth as wired and wireless networks become more integrated. Right now, he said, security and management are still separate on those networks, but he expects to see an integrated approach in the near future. “When this gets tied together, you can do it all at the access switch,” he said. “Then I can think of moving my critical applications to my wireless users as well as my wired users.
Robust, Flexible Technology
While wireless networking has been around for years, it was the formal ratification of the 802.11n standard that made enterprise users take notice. The new standard supported technology that was both robust and flexible. In addition, it allowed true portability, which in turn meant that enterprise-grade portable devices became feasible. Meanwhile, the continuing growth of 3G and 4G wireless meant that the enterprise-grade connection could exist outside the office.
“The fundamental objective is to make sure that people in the field have access to the same information and capability that people in the office do,” said Craig Mathias, principal analyst at the Farpoint Group advisory service. “There used to be a saying that people in the field don’t want the same things as people in the office, but that’s not true. This is the first time we’ve been able to replicate office IT functions and put them in the field.”
Unfortunately, some wireless carriers are complicating the adoption of enterprise wireless networking. AT&T, for example, has stopped offering unlimited data plans due to the demand for bandwidth by the Apple iPad and iPhone.
Mathias said that this is a real problem for corporate users. “Users have no idea how to manage data volume,” Mathias said. “It’s unfair to charge people for the volume of data because people don’t know how much data they’re going to get.”
He added that the ultimate direction for enterprise wireless is WiFi-and 4G when it becomes widely available. “There’s no substitute for capacity and coverage,” Mathias pointed out. “It will involve WiFi playing a strategic role in high-density environments.
“Eventually, it will be an all-IP network. When we move to LTE [Long Term Evolution], and WiMax, we have the potential to move all traffic into the IP domain. The carrier will be able to divide up that traffic dynamically.”
This type of flexible coverage was the rationale for the development of Cisco’s Cius tablet, which is capable of handling true enterprise applications. According to Barry O’Sullivan, Cisco’s senior vice president for the Voice Technology Group, the Cius is a video-centric device designed for 11n and 3G environments. “The primary users will be businesspeople who are mobile, inside buildings or between buildings,” he said.
O’Sullivan said Cisco has designed the Cius to support 4G LTE when it becomes available. He said that he thinks the device will be particularly useful for financial services and public sector applications, adding that there’s a rugged case accessory for warehouse and factory environments.
“The name of the game is that all businesses have access to the same information,” said Farpoint’s Mathias. “When everybody has access to the same stuff, the only differentiator will be how quickly you can move stuff around to people who make decisions, and how quickly you can make those decisions known. How much is it worth to get a temporal advantage over your competition?”
The answer is that it could be worth quite a lot. Mathias describes a mythical insurance agent to illustrate how a well-designed enterprise wireless approach can make a difference. “You’re an insurance agent sitting in your client’s office, and your client wants to make changes,” Mathias said, describing the first scenario. “You take notes, and offer to send the numbers over.
“Now you’re a modern insurance agent, and you’re interacting with an application that figures the numbers on the fly. Who’s going to get the business? Nothing irritates customers more than having to wait for an answer.”
Ultimately, that’s the promise of enterprise wireless: not having to make your business wait for something to happen, whether it’s for a new insurance quote, or for a pick list to be delivered to a forklift driver, or for the warehouse crew to show up at the loading dock. In business, time is everything, and gaining that temporal advantage is the reason the enterprise is starting to love wireless.